Perhaps the fire inside B.J. Penn began kindling when Nick Diaz backed his trash talk up and brutalized him in October 2011. Or maybe the ignition took place in June when budding welterweight Rory MacDonald made it perfectly apparent that given the opportunity, he believed he would thrash the former two-division UFC champion.
Regardless of when the metamorphoses took place, Penn appeared as physiologically and psychologically prepared as he’s ever been in his 12-year professional career standing before MacDonald in their staredown on Friday at the UFC on Fox 5’s weigh-ins. Looking both lean and focused, Penn chomped at the bit to get in a stoic MacDonald's face.
Before the staredown, Penn cleared up his motivation for making his transformation by emphatically stating this to MacDonald on Thursday at the pre-fight press conference:
“Rory said he took this fight because he really wants to hurt me. He said I’m probably going to die in the ring -- and he better be ready to back up everything he said.”
While MacDonald, a 23-year-old virtuoso, has prevailed in four of his five UFC bouts, with his only loss coming in the waning seconds of a tremendous scrap against former welterweight title challenger Carlos Condit, the soon-to-be 34-year-old Hawaiian has tasted victory just once since whipping Diego Sanchez in a lightweight title fight in December 2009.
Since his win over Sanchez, Penn dropped back-to-back decisions to Frankie Edgar in lightweight title fights. The former lightweight and welterweight champion then knocked out Matt Hughes, drew with Jon Fitch and lost to Diaz, all at welterweight.
Penn cleared up his reason for coming out of retirement by saying this in an interview with MMA Heat's Karyn Bryant:
Yeah, the Diaz fight went bad, but it wasn't that. It was my last four or five fights right in a row. I mean, you look at my record (and) it's losses, all decision losses, a draw, (and) one win mixed in there. That was the whole thing. Training, putting all this work into it, (and) obviously doing the wrong things, getting those results, I was like, 'What am I doing this for already. This isn't how it should be.' ... But when I'm in the gym and training with other people and different people from around the world stop in my gym and I get to train with them, and I'm like, 'I'm still pretty good, you know, I might as well ride this until the wheels fall off for a little bit because I know when I'm older, I'm not going to get this chance to come back, so (I'll) give it another shot.'
In contrast to Penn, MacDonald won't have a legacy to cement in this fight. A massive welterweight with slick Muay Thai techniques, brutal ground-and-pound abilities and excellent wrestling and submission skills, MacDonald's a surging prospect to say the least, and he's only just begun to hit his stride.
In fact, it's certainly not a stretch to say that MacDonald will soon join Tristar Gym teammate Georges St Pierre as one of the UFC's nine titleholders (10 counting interim bantamweight champion Renan Barão).
Incentives and motives for winning aside, MacDonald made it evident that he doesn't think Penn can handle his diversity in an interview with MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani:
"There's a lot of things that I admire about him (Penn), but I don't think about them. I have a very cold mindset and I'm going to go in there and take what's mine."
For his coup de gråce, MacDonald added this when Helwani asked him how he thinks the fight is going to play out:
"I think I'm going to annihilate him in every field."
Although the two disagree, one thing's certain: The typically reserved MacDonald used trash-talking tactics in order to fight the best Penn. If Penn can't get a victory, at least he'll give the fans one.